I was 20 years old in 1973 and living in Marin County. I was an Au Pair for a family of five, living in a hillside suburban neighborhood, overlooking Tiburon. I lived downstairs in the converted wood paneled library.
I drove a faded yellow VW Bug and dressed in a long wooly vintage coat. I attended classes in Women’s studies at The College of Marin, and my father was a good two thousand miles away.
During the hours I was not in class or tending to Inge’s three children, I sat in the coffee house across the street from the college, reading, smoking and drinking coffee. Each of these was an enormous, individual adventure, but to have all three together, was a star spangled banner sort of freedom. There in the café, at the varnished wood tables, I could read, write, study, and practice solitary delight. These were the activities my father tried to beat out of me, with all good intentions.
One day in April, while sitting at my table, I was approached by a man in a tennis outfit. He was dark skinned, with birch brown eyes, thick defined lips, and wavy, blue black hair that draped one eye. He could have been Hawaiian, Italian or Spanish, all those ethnic features melted in his face.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
“Play It As It Lays,” do you know of Joan Didion?”
“I think so. Why do you like it?”
“What, the book you mean?”
“Her character, the woman in the story takes risks, she’s not afraid.”
“I … sometimes.”
“What for? You can have anything you want.”
“What about you?” I replied, blushing.
. “I’m a man that lives by my own rules. I have a lot of fun, and that’s how I live my life.”
“Why the sarcasm. Don’t you believe me?”
“Why should I? I don’t know you.”
“Yes you do.” Then I lost his attention, and his eyes scouted the room. I stood up to leave.
“Why are you leaving?” he asked.
“I see you are looking for someone else.”
“I’m not interested in anyone except you.” He said twirling his tennis racket.
“I’d like to see you again. Do you want to give me your number?”
I stalled him, glancing at his muscular legs.
“I have nice legs don’t I?” he teased.
“You have okay legs, what’s your name?”
“Macedonio Batzani Obledo.”
“Oh don’t be so American, it doesn’t suit you. Are you a student?”
“Yes, are you?”
Laughter ruptured out of him. I didn’t think it was so funny. He quickly regained his composure and added that he was a student of life, and he studied all the time. He added something clever that diffused the next question, which was, “how old are you?” He continued to pinball my mixed up emotions, until I handed him my phone number on a piece of paper. He walked me to my car, twirling the tennis racket,and I could not take my eyes off him.
Mace called several days later, and we made a date. Inge greeted him with bubbly European warmth, followed by Espresso in the living room. The children emerged from their playrooms to meet the stranger. Inge engaged in conversation for several hours, without ever sacrificing her smile or sparkle. She found out Max’s age, that he was recently divorced, had lived in Brentwood and played tennis at the Riviera Country Club. I was on the verge of a rebellion jackpot. Not only did I find a man 17 years older with a mysterious past, who was divorced and his ancestry unknown, but he embodied a brand of sensuality, that either enraged or imprisoned women.
Mace unhooked the lid that had caged my spirit, and opened the door. He was the wild card, the impostor, poet, musician, and artist of life. He embraced my insecurities, questions and doubts, and then gave them back to me with a seal of approval. My flat chest became sexy, my lanky frame elegant, and my restraint classy. I was 20 years old and in a hurry to understand what love was all about. We rode around San Francisco in my VW singing, “Midnight at the Oasis”. I dressed up like Rita Hayworth and he bought me a vintage silk negligee. He was 37 and worldly, my sexuality burst threw the ceiling.
We moved into a stately mansion in San Rafael, befitting of his grandiose dreams and my romantic vision. We lived with ten other outcasts, sharing the same traditional vintage Victorian furnishings. All of the characters were acting out parts; Jimmy wore a white tunic and spoke in clipped passages from books. Gail was her hometown Queen, a single mother and skilled husband hunter. Terence was the pensive astrologer, living crossed legged on the floor of the den amongst a pile of books and charts. Katie was a sharpened New Yorker recently stripped of conventions and migrated to California. Invisible Doobie lived in the attic and spent all day sucking laughing gas. Ann, an alternating fragile and fierce aging hippie with utopiaian ideas, managed the house.
Mace decorated our room and I posed on the canopy bed. At dinner sometimes all twelve of us sat in the formal dining room and conversation scintillated around crystal chandeliers. It was a bohemian Great Gatsby commune, complete with volleyball matches on summer evenings, piano concerts in the parlor, and unconventional seventies living. Mace played and taught tennis, and I lounged around Country Clubs looking for jobs. Just the environment my father had ordained for meeting the right fellow.
Six months later, I made the immutable decision to introduce Mace and my father. Mace was not disturbed when I confided my father and his alleged Mafia connections. He alluded that he had known wise guys in Chicago, and was not intimidated in the least. Nothing I told him was shocking. He had heard all about my father’s closest friend, Johnny Roselli.
“ Lue, Johnny is the Mafia boss in Los Angeles, I know- I’ve lived there and read about him.”
“You shouldn’t believe the newspapers. Johnny and my father go to the barber shop, and out to dinner.” I contested his allegation and insisted Johnny was a harmless retired Italian businessman and I adored him.
“Your father is Johnny’s right hand man.” He persisted.
“Can you prove that?”
“Lue, I’m not judging him, and neither should you.” I was years away from understanding anything about my father.
We arrived at my father’s Hollywood apartment doorstep with mutual anticipation and excitement. Mace thrust his hand out to my father.
“How do you do Mr. Smiley?” I recognized my father’s feigned approval. How could he be indignant so quickly? He put on his best social manners, but I felt the examination beginning.
“ Macedonion, is that what you go by?”
“No, Mace is easier.”
“And your last name, how is that pronounced?” My father sharpened his blade on Max’s elusive identity.
“ Spanish Italian, I am a mixture, Batzani Obledo.”
My father’s expressions are recognizable, and the one he uses when he suspects a fraud is equally deceiving. His lips purse together and he nods his head very slightly, imitating approval, but his eyes are unforgiving stainless steel blue.
I tried to ignore the signals; it was such a special day for me. While I was preparing dinner, my father invited Mace to go for a walk. There I was in my dream world, cooking stuffed zucchini for my father and the man I loved, unprepared to accept the distortion of my father’s repellent reaction and Max’s eagerness for approval.
When they returned, my father went into the living room to watch television and Mace came into the kitchen.
“How’d it go? Did he ask you lots of questions?” I said. Mace pranced nervously.
“Your father’s a heavyweight, but we got along. I know how to talk his language. He’s a powerful man Lue, more so that I thought. ”
“What did he ask?”
“What I plan on doing, he could help us you know.”
“That won’t happen, I’m sure of it.”
The evening was weighted, with long heavy silences, and jokes my father ignored. I made nervous table conversation, and my father ate quickly. He most likely used more restraint that night with Mace than I will ever realize. My father sent Mace to the motel and asked me to stay for a while. Some moments later my father began pacing the living room, and then all at once he exploded.
“He’s a filthy punk! A small time con! He gave me a lot of mumbo jumbo about his tennis, and some deal with a country club. Luellen, this is a gigolo, he will take you for everything you’ve got. Drop him now before it’s too late. He’s not qualified for anything, he has no business, and he’s a street wise nothing.” His voice was threatening, face reddened in anger, and his entire body trembled. I sat limply on the couch caught between his truth, and my illusions.
“You’re wrong. He does have contacts with the Tennis Club in Marin and he knows a lot of people.” I argued.
“So what! He can tell you anything. You don’t have any common sense when it comes to him. I’m telling you what you’re dealing with, he’s a fake.”
“I think you’re wrong. You never liked anyone I’ve introduced.”
“You never brought a man I could look in the eye. You make a choice right now, if you want him after what I’ve told you, then walk out that door and don’t ever come back. I mean it now, you decide!” I looked into his narrowed eyes. I went into the kitchen, picked up my purse and opened the front door. He rushed over and slammed the door as I crossed the threshold. It was the first time I did not back down. After the door shut, the world looked different.
On the drive back to Marin, we stopped one night in Santa Barbara. We had breakfast early that morning. Mace was reading the newspaper, he pushed the paper to my side, “Read this,” he said. I read the article, and was ejected out my dream all at once. My father along with twelve other Mafia members were under investigation for their part in an alleged plot to extort money from various legal and illegal business enterprises. Smiley, it said, was indicted a year ago in an investigation of alleged Mafia activities in the Los Angeles area. The other names were Frankie Carbo, Frank Milano, Samuel Sciortino and De La Rosa.
“See, I told you your father is a powerful man Lue.” Something shifted in both of us after that. I couldn’t put the covers over my eyes any longer. I sat in the ray of sunshine rising above the mountains, and studied that newspaper article. I realized then why the newspapers were hidden, why my father behaved as he did, why he distrusted everyone. I felt betrayed, I felt shattered, but I said nothing. I was tangled in my own family history, and it would take years to find a way out.
“Are you afraid of him?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t do anything to me, not with the government on his back,” Mace assured me.